Guy walks into a bar on a night reserved for off-duty police and pointedly ignores the bartender's advice to leave because "the place gets rowdy — and not in a fun way." The warning comes true with a vengeance: Anyone looking for trouble has come to the right place in "Cops and Friends of Cops," writer-director Ron Klier's edgy new suspense drama.
VS. Theatre Company's continuing commitment to challenging work and high quality staging is immediately apparent in the company's first production in its new home (the former Black Dahlia Theatre). The stunningly detailed dive bar scenic design by Danny Cistone sets the smoldering powder keg ambience ignited when scruffy drifter Paul (Johnny Clark) shows up on cop night with an agenda that doesn't remain hidden for long.
As Paul's confrontation with hostile cop Emmett (Andrew Hawkes) escalates out of control, Klier's highly physicalized and at times violent staging keeps the tension at squirm-inducing pitch.
The well-cast ensemble negotiates the plot twists with vivid characterizations that smartly play off stereotyped attitudes unraveling under duress, bringing raw core identities to the surface. A veteran cop approaching retirement (Gareth Williams) increasingly vents his latent racism against his ambitious younger black partner (Rolando Boyce). The cynical bartender (Paul Vincent O'Connor) emerges from his jaded shell in a touching reminiscence about his days in a touring rock band.
Klier's script builds to a riveting first-act climax with masterful pacing and economy. The second half would benefit from further development, particularly in the placement of some character revelations and digressive conversations that defy credibility given the high-stakes situation that's been so skillfully established. Still, the fine performances keep this new piece as gripping and disturbing as Klier intended.
"Cops and Friends of Cops," VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Ends June 1. $25. (323) 739-4411 or www.vstheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.